'The Endless River' shatters awkward silence on race, rape and violence in SA
“Silence for me is when the audience starts to watch,” says filmmaker Oliver Hermanus, via email from the Sydney Film Festival.
“They are not used to it in movies, so they pay attention.”
And there a lot of silences in Hermanus’ new feature film, The Endless River. There are nervous awkward silences, heartbreakingly sad silences, violent traumatic silences and some that just leave you not quite knowing what to feel.
Whether it’s watching a woman having to fight off her attackers in a rape scene, the husband of the raped woman unleashing a racist tirade directed at the police or two grief-stricken characters finding an awkward solace in each other’s company, the film is unsettling throughout, never really allowing the viewer to get comfortable.
It’s a catatonically sad film about grief that also offers up a murder mystery narrative and it’s the “whodunnit” which keeps the audience asking questions right until the end.
When the film made its African premiere last weekend at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) one could almost feel sorry for lead actress Crystal-Donna Roberts who, in a question and answer session afterwards, was bombarded with questions about where the story goes from the point the film ends and how certain scenes should be interpreted.
After the 108 minutes of watching Endless River, the audience had clearly become attached to the two lead characters.
In September last year the film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, becoming the first South African film to be nominated for the Golden Lion.
It has since been screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Sydney International Film Festival, before making its way to DIFF.
Hermanus says the starting point for the film was not the theme of grief, but rather the landscape and name of the town where they shot the majority of the film. The town is called Riviersonderend and is 140km east of Cape Town in the Overberg region.
Hermanus says the name seemed to suggest “suffering”, “sorrow”, “isolation”, “violence”, “lawlessness” and “injustice” to him and that it exhibited the usual race and class divisions one finds in most small South African towns.
The film reinforces these race and class divides. There is the white bar and the black bar, the white church and the black one, the white victim and the black one. The white crime is solved and the black remains unsolved.
Hermanus says these are important statements in the film.
“Like most South Africans I see and absorb the racial tensions, inequalities and self-imposed segregation that still play out in rural areas,” he says.
In the film, when French actor Nicolas Duvauchelle’s character is dealing with the murder of his family, his tirade at the black police is similar to many recent cases where white victims of crimes respond with angry racist rants.
“I chose a Frenchman, instead of an Afrikaner or an Englishman, to demonstrate that even someone who has no real tie to the country through a colonial past is very aware and subject to the attitudes of white people and their racial politics in South Africa,” says Hermanus.
A lot of the landscape shots in the film (and there are many) are dark and ominous, yet visually beautiful. When the murder scene happens, there is a focus on the door to the farmhouse, signifying the threat of danger from the outside.
“Can one leave one’s door open in the middle of nowhere in South Africa anymore?” Hermanus asks rhetorically.
“Should we be conscious of violent crime or does that mean we have lost our humanity?” he asks.
“All these thoughts are in play.”
Hermanus says the film is influenced by 1950s melodrama, the work of Douglas Sirks in particular.
“The opening titles are part of that reference but as a creative work, this film is my deconstruction of melodrama in my South African way,” he says.
“The film is shot in CinemaScope which is another 1950s convention. All these elements were very inspired by the landscape and 1950s melodrama would often include a drifter, new to the town, a diner and the small town waitress who he either falls in loves with or wrongs,” says Hermanus.
“It’s the recipe of this film.”
On the opening screening at DIFF, Roberts said Hermanus was very “clear” about “what he wants” from the actors, even describing him as “pendantic” and a “slave driver” when it came to getting the shot.
“Oliver is quite amazing at knowing how people’s brains work, which can be both beautiful and scary,” said Roberts.
“He got to know me well enough to know how to push me and take me completely out of my comfort zone.”
“Directing is about suggestion and provocation,” says Hermanus.
“Actors, good actors, understand and respect the relationship and how it plays out. They have to go to war for me each day, suffer emotional injury and frustration but be willing to do it again the next day,” he says.
“It’s my job to protect them from thinking about anything else other than getting this war won.”